Driving along a highway a couple of years ago we were forced to stop whilst a few trees* beside the road were felled. We turned off the engine and settled in for a long wait. I was fascinated. A bloke with a chainsaw – which he wielded like it weighed a kg or so – skipped along the steep incline (on which it seemed impossible anything would get a roothold to grow, let alone these huge pines) and cut a V-shaped chunk out of each tree. A couple of taps and three fell together, domino-like, exactly alongside the road rather than on top of any waiting cars. Other than a loud crack as their trunks split, they made very little sound, despite that there were plenty around to hear it. We’d been stationary less than five minutes.
For decades a line of trees* stood parallel to our street in Ohakune, separating homes from the field behind. Over the years they have disappeared – we bought our house eight years ago and all that remained behind it was a row of flat stumps just within the fenceline. At that time a gravelled road ran into the field and a couple of houses sat within new gardens. Since then more buildings have grown, seeming to appear from nowhere when we haven’t visited for a few months. The section behind us is almost the last to be developed and a house will appear (literally – they are relocating one from elsewhere) in the next few months. It prompted a conversation with our neighbour, Berta, whose half dozen trees still stand, at a rough guess over twenty metres tall. Depending upon the time of year they either provide welcome shade to our back garden or steal the last heat of the day a couple of hours early. Another neighbour took theirs out recently and found that they were beginning to rot from the inside, as trees do, and the fear was that these remaining giants would choose their own time and direction to fall.
So Martin, the Tree Man – who looked a little like a tree himself, tall and lean, weathered and strong – arrived. He confirmed they were likely near the end of their lives and it was best to take them down now whilst they still had somewhere to fall rather than wait until they would have to be removed piecemeal when there was no empty land to drop them onto. He returned this week, three chainsaws on the back of his ute.
I stood at least two tree heights away as Martin revved up a chainsaw, cut a couple of notches, tapped a wedge or two into a slit the opposite side of the trunk of the first, three-trunked, tree, and the one alongside it – they were entangled so had to come down together. The trees shuddered, acknowledging their impending doom. Another tap and they swayed towards me, as graceful as the arm of a ballet dancer, landing perfectly where Martin had forecast they would. Neil, standing at the other side, felt the thump as their trunks struck the earth but I didn’t, merely a sudden draft of air, and a soft swooshing sound as the branches settled around their corpses. There was a moment’s silence before the chainsaw moved in again, slicing into the wood like a Sheffield knife through cheese, cutting it into thick rounds. By mid-afternoon the last one was down, a kereru flying from its topmost branches as it began its graceful descent (we fear we may have made him homeless – Berta reported later he was flying around where the trees were). Martin’s work done, he left, a slight delay when his ute wouldn’t start, soon sorted when Fidel, Berta’s husband, whacked the starter motor with a hammer to kick it into life. Apparently, the ute has done nearly half a million km so it can be forgiven its little tantrums.
We were in Wellington last week but, according to a friend, it was merino weather in Ohakune. This week merino wasn’t required, the cool of the mountain morning disappearing within minutes under the fierce heat of the sun. It was hard to work in – turns out that felling half a dozen trees is the easy bit; it’s what comes after that takes time and effort. Four of us worked in a team, Neil and I the labourers, desk jockeys doing as we were bid by farmers who know a lot more about working hard than we do. Fidel, strong as the proverbial ox despite nearing seventy, hoisted lumps of wood we could barely move between us; Berta lugged logs that I had to resort to rolling.
Fidel had borrowed a splitter and we manhandled the rounds towards and onto it, to convert huge circles of tree trunk into logs that would fit in a household logburner. I’d never seen one in action before: pneumatic pressure drives an iron wedge down, digging into the wood and splitting it along its natural lines. Water seeped out along the line of the wedge as it bit, occasionally a spray fountained away in an arc, hitting the hot metal bed and evaporating almost immediately. The machinery made short work of most of the rounds, groaned its way through tougher parts where knots or branch-holds ran contrary to the grain, loud cracks from the wood as it gave way. Some of the rounds were so huge and heavy none of us could move them and Fidel had to carve them into halves with his chainsaw. Even then Neil and I couldn’t lift them between us and had to roll and manhandle them to the splitter.
Rabbit, a neighbour who also owns a few bits of heavy machinery, brought some along to help, manoeuvring a small bulldozer with a large claw on the end of its arm, grabbing clawfuls of debris and feeding them into a huge shredder. Working alongside that as it chewed through branches was the hardest, the noise and heat it generated incessant. The temperature was nearly 30C by late afternoon and I thought I might collapse. Gradually, the pile of branches became a pile of tiny chips; gradually, the pile of wood to be spilt diminished. It took three days of hard work to finish the job that Martin had started. Bruises and scratches all over my body (how did I get one in the middle of my stomach?) testify to my efforts. It will probably take a few weeks for me to get rid of my latest earworm – Monty Python’s I’m a Lumberjack.
Trees are amazing structures, breathing in carbon dioxide and giving us life-sustaining oxygen in return. They offer shelter from the elements and provide material for us to build homes. To see them lying prone on the ground is a sad sight, but I could dig my fingers into the middle of those huge rounds and the heart crumbled beneath them; the wood from the already dying trees will keep us warm for a few winters (although as we split it I felt farther away from needing the heat of a fire than I think I ever have).
On a still hot evening, after showering off the sweat and dust, we sat in the shade with a beer, comparing work wounds. Fidel, carrying a bottle of gin, and Berta (with accompanying tonic) arrived, both looking less exhausted than we did. It was a pleasant surprise and, while Neil fetched more chairs, Fidel poured generous measures (because You only take down the trees once). We toasted our efforts and commemorated the fallen; and hoped that the kereru would find a new home soon.
*All trees referred to here are non-native pines. One of New Zealand’s biggest export crops is wood from trees like these; one of New Zealand’s biggest weed problems is from self-established seedlings from these crops, known as wilding pines.